25 YEAR CLUB: Acura NSX

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 14

Today at JNC we welcomes another inductee into the 25 Year Club, one that launched exactly 25 years ago, on September 14, 1989.  Yes, it’s a car, it’s Japanese, and it’s beloved. But we’re going to go one step further and call it the Best Car Ever Made. Consider this proof: The 1990s produced the best cars of any decade in automotive history and the Honda NSX was the best car of the 90s. Ergo, the NSX was the Best Car Ever Made, QED.

Someday, centuries from now, when humanity has either destroyed itself, achieved the singularity or abandoned our home for the stars, archaeologists from a new species will emerge to examine all that we have achieved. The Pyramids. Culture. Democracy. The art of moving ourselves across land at great speed. 

Honda Acura NSX

Sure, there have been many things humankind has created with our hands and brains. But rarely in history has there been a machine so unflinchingly good at the one thing it was created to do.

Today, as in 1990, there are cars that are faster, crammed with more microchips, better at conserving dead prehistoric plants and animals. Whatever your metric of goodness is, there’s a carriage out there with bigger numbers on the spec sheet. As a balance of the thousands of interconnected variables that make up a car, though, there’s nothing better than an NSX.

When it debuted, the motoring press fell over themselves to come up with the next superlative. One Sports Car International contributor called it “the most physically exciting car he’s driven since he bought and raced a Porsche Speedster in 1955.” Outside of its normal road tests and comparos, Car and Driver made the unprecedented move of collecting its staff to write a love letter to the NSX. “Our top choice for pure driving pleasure,” noted one. “It’s so precise in its responses… as if it were hard-wired into my cerebellum,” said another. Don Fuller perhaps won this contest when he issued the following decree in the September 1990 volume of Motor Trend:

It’s the best sports car the world has ever produced. Any time. Any place. Any price… far better than any Ferrari or Lamborghini ever built; it makes the Corvette ZR1 look like something contrived under a shade tree… We’ve spent over 100 years developing the automobile. After driving the NSX, it’s been worth the wait.

Its list of production car firsts is too long to list here, but we’ll name a few big ones: the first all-aluminum unibody, which in combination with a revolutionary all-aluminum suspension was 500 pounds lighter than a steel equivalent, the first use of titanium connecting rods and, of course, the first US car to come with VTEC, yo.

Honda NSX Grand Prix White

Ironically, when you drive an NSX, it’s hard to believe that it was actually made. But it was. Listing its technical accomplishments implies that the experience of the NSX can be somehow broken down and quantified. It can’t. The NSX transcends the sum of its mechanical parts and seems, like a cheetah or a dolphin, as if it has always existed in nature.

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 23

The philosophy of the NSX was simple: a race car for the road. Honda returned to Formula One in 1983 and planning for what would become the NSX began soon after. It wasn’t known at the time, but Honda would in a few years come to dominate the sport in an unprecedented manner with its Marlboro-clad, white and red, McLaren-bodied racers.

1992 Honda NSX-R

It wasn’t the first time Honda would break new ground in the world’s most esteemed races, either. Founder Soichiro Honda had always possessed an almost fanatical drive to win at the world’s toughest motorsports. To put his creations through the ringer, he’d even built his own race course, Suzuka Circuit, in 1962. He probably would’ve bankrupted his own company if his products weren’t so damn good.

GR1-863s_Honda NSX & S800

Coming off a sweeping victory at Isle of Man TT motorcycle race in 1961 — in what was only Honda’s third time participating, no less — Old Man Soichiro decided to tackle the automotive equivalent. Keep in mind that at the time, Honda had barely begun automobile development. Its first production passenger car, the S500, would not be released until 1963. Reportedly, when Honda-san issued the order telling his staff to prepare for the coming F1 project, the response was, “What’s F1?”

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 26

Nevertheless, within two years a Honda race car was sitting on the grid of the famed Nürburgring circuit for the start of the ’64 German Grand Prix. A year after that, Honda became the first Japanese automaker to win a Formula One Grand Prix.

Honda Acura NSX design sketch

Honda-san’s never-say-die spirit translated into a culture of constant envelope-pushing and innovation in his production vehicles as well. The roots of the NSX can be traced back to January 1984, when Honda’s engineers began experimenting with a mid-engined City. It never made it to production, but it lay the groundwork for further research into a MR layout.

Honda Acura NSX aluminum body 02

The NSX project itself began in earnest in late 1985, under the leadership of Shigeru Uehara. The goal was a car that could “bridge [Honda’s] mass production FF models and F1 cars,” he once explained. It would “become the new face of Honda” and serve as a road car whose performance was “as close as possible to an F1 machine.”

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 57

F1 machines and race cars in general, however, aren’t built to last much longer than the duration of the race they’re running. Entire engines and transmissions are rebuilt or replaced after each outing. That was, of course, unacceptable for something wearing the Honda badge, so Uehara vowed to make this F1 machine for the road as dependable as any production Honda. And as you may recall, Hondas ran like clockwork.

Honda Acura NSX Nurburgring testing 2

By 1986 NSX development was in full swing. Uehara’s team created an aluminum-bodied CR-X prototype to test everything from rigidity to repairability of the new material. They built a base in Mullenbach, a village neighboring the Nürburgring — a return to the site of Honda’s F1 debut — and became the first Japanese automaker to do long-term testing overseas. As the project neared completion in 1989, they even employed F1’s Aryton Senna and Satoru Nakajima as test drivers.

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 56

These development techniques are commonplace in the supercar world today, but they were unheard of in 1990, and especially unheard of from a company primarily known for making the Civic. The NSX, though, wasn’t made like the Civic. Honda constructed a brand new plant in Tochigi dedicated to the supercar, where technicians largely hand-built each one. Honda even engineered a brand new aluminum spot-welding machine to create the NSX’s chassis.

Honda Acura NSX Chicago Auto Show reveal

The NS-X Concept launched at the 81st Chicago Auto Show to a thunderous reaction. The production car debuted at Honda Verno dealerships in September 1990 and spawned a three-year wait list in Japan. A silver one helped Winston Wolfe shorten his commute from 30 minutes to 10 (9 minutes and 37 seconds, actually). It became the car that defined the decade.

1992 Honda NSX-R cabin

Much of what has been written about the NSX goes something like this: It offered supercar performance but with the comfort and reliability of an Accord. While true, it doesn’t quite capture how revolutionary the notion of drivability was back in 1990. Typical Euro exotics of the era had the usability of a UNIVAC, if UNIVAC also required the strength of the Incredible Hulk to steer and modulate the clutch. They needed $10,000 a year just to continue to do basic car things, and even then, problems that wouldn’t be acceptable in a Tata Nano today were commonplace.

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 46

When hunters on the Eastern Steppes first encountered the horse, they didn’t domesticate it because it was prone to eating its rider or having hooves fall off for no reason. A trustworthy companion with which to chase prey and journey, as long as it was fed and cleaned — that was the bargain. The NSX not only made good on that bond, but forced the entire supercar industry to evolve. It bears repeating: Rarely in history has there been a machine so unflinchingly good at the one thing it was created to do.

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 08

As recently as three or four years ago, you could still find a pretty mint NSX for about $25,000. That was probably the ground floor for NSX prices, and it’s long gone now. Today, a clean example will set you back $40,000 at a minimum and prices continue to climb. Go any lower and you’ll be relegated to excessive mileages or unfortunately modified rejects from the sport compact era (Though sad, as the holy grail of Japanese cars the NSX was subject to many an import tuner with more money than taste).

1990 Honda NSX cabin white

Today, the Tochigi Takanezawa plant is where Honda’s official NSX Refresh Plan takes place. For a price, owners can bring their cars for reconditioning, and it’s clear that Honda wants to keep their crowning achievements on the road. Everything from engine tuning to seat re-upholstery to factory paint can be brought back to like-new condition by the Honda technicians who actually built the cars.

1990 Honda NSX back

Of all the feats the NSX has accomplished, though, its greatest is perhaps as a barometer of the ascendancy of Japan and its automobile industry. Honda automobiles arrived on American shores in 1970, with a lineup of 600cc hatchbacks. From those four-wheeled motorcycles, it took the house that Soichiro built only a scant 20 years to claw its way to world-trouncing supercars.

1993 Acura NSX - Grand Prix White 05

The NSX hailed from a time when Japan’s auto industry was run by dreamers, and built things because they wanted to and could. The Japanese marketing tagline for the NSX was “Our dreams come true.” Not your dreams, but our dreams. It could be interpreted as a triumph for the company. Reading it again, though, it seems as if Honda also knew it was giving a gift — one of superior movement — to all of us, collectively, as humankind.

Images courtesy of Honda.

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10 Responses to 25 YEAR CLUB: Acura NSX

  1. Nigel said:

    Another dream car reaches twenty five, felling old again !!
    (I miss the old Honda). Happy new Year Ben and JNC.

  2. John M said:

    Speaking of superlatives, that was one of the best car articles I have ever read! Dolphins aside, I really enjoyed the info, wording, and pics. However, I couldn’t help but think what could have been with the MID4.

    Way to bring it to wrap up the year and look forward to many more in 2016. Happy New Year!

  3. Vballin said:

    Epic car, and great photos Ben! Happy New Year

  4. Fenton said:

    Thanks for this exceptionally well written post. One of my favorites on the NSX since it perfectly conveys what I love about this car without bombarding me with 0-60 times, braking distance, hp/torque figures and such. I echo many of your thoughts in my Youtube review of my stock 1991 Formula Red NSX, which I bought only 5 months ago:

  5. xs10shl said:

    While one may be tempted to chalk up the glowing media reviews as typical journalist hyperbole, Gordon Murray (perhaps the only man alive whose automotive opinion should ALWAYS count) stated this of the NSX:

    “It is remarkable how our vision {for the McLaren F1} comes through in this car”.

    Full text here: http://oppositelock.kinja.com/gordon-murray-on-the-honda-nsx-1495548371

  6. alvin said:

    Hard to get emotional about a car through text..Ben this was beautifully written. Happy New Year!

  7. Ant said:

    A proper dream car for me, these. Was lucky enough to drive a very late example – 2005 – a couple of years back. Imola orange. Private test track. The sound of accelerating from a crawl through the gears to 100+ will live with me for a long time.

    Unfortunately, I’ve long missed my window of opportunity as far as price is concerned! Instead I must make do with another car made at Tochigi, from aluminium – a first-gen Honda Insight. Not quite as exciting, but the same attention to detail and groundbreaking engineering, applied in pursuit of economy rather than speed.

    On a different note, part of me was hoping to see the Toyota Sera featured in the 25 year club. Not as revered as some, but wonderfully quirky. It’s well known the NSX inspired some of the thinking behind the McLaren F1, but I believe Gordon Murray has also said in the past that it was the Sera’s doors that inspired the final entry method for the F1…

  8. bert said:

    Back when I was dong auto dealer photography and advertising, I got to shoot an NSX at what used to be Detroit Autoworks (at one time the largest indoor showroom on the west coast) earlier that day I had bruised my tailbone on the door sill of a Viper, sprained my crotch trying to get into an Elise, and got in a fist fight with a Ferrari 355 convertible trying to get the top down. The NSX was a very pretty and rare lighter blue/black combo, and was so easy and comfortable to get into, that I just sat in it for about 20 minutes just recovering from the earlier supercar abuse! I only got to drive it across the parking lot and inside to the photo booth, but it was half a minute of pure driving bliss! Aside from the 72 Mini Cooper, the NSX was probably my favorite out of all the cars I shot over my 5 years in that job.

  9. Negishi no Keibajo said:

    Known in Seattle as the car a younger Bill Gates got a traffic infraction in. Showed up at traffic court with a team of attorneys. Nice car… I like Bill too. He probably rides an armored Escalante now unfortunately.

  10. RdS said:

    Very well written!
    I was originally going to chip in saying the NSX owes a lot to the AW11.. Japans first mid-engine sports car, thus the first gen MR2 is in fact the greatest car ever made in the history of the universe..
    ..but no..
    ..It’s a struggle to even joke about that with a straight face.

    Grasping at straws, I can have an easy laugh at the vulgar ruffled leather.. but its just a front masking my tears of automotive disappointment..
    The NSX really is just an amazing car. A great piece of engineering; technically interesting, reliable, well built, and as good to drive as it is to look at. A 90’s dream machine..

    Poor me.

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